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Arts organisations are great. They do amazing, life-changing work on tiny budgets. They build community cohesion, reduce criminal reoffending, help young people learn new skills. The arts combat depression, dementia and loneliness. But you knew that. That’s why you’re reading this. And if you attend an arts conference, it’s pretty much a given that you already support the arts, most likely work in the arts, and are passionate about creating and supporting great art. So you also don’t need convincing that a speaker’s organisation does good work. A group of like-minded people gathered in one place could put serious weight behind something and make a practical difference. However, many of the recent events I’ve attended have not taken advantage of this fact. These events have, at best, been a showcase of great work without much other content and, at worst, been mutual commiserating or back-scratching. I know the big conversations happen, around the country, daily. Arts organisations are innovating, taking risks, finding new methods and partners for collaboration. So why doesn’t this creative, intelligent, forward-thinking attitude translate into organising good conferences? And if these conferences are part of the arts’ public face, shouldn’t they be, well, better? If the best thing that comes out of a day-long event is the biscuits, then we’re doing something wrong. Unfortunately, last year’s Media Festival Arts didn’t even get the biscuits right. It gathered 400 people at London’s Roundhouse, and allowed speakers, including culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, to talk – seemingly – about whatever they liked. It cost up to £700 + VAT to attend. And they ran out of lunch. Speakers came with an agenda or a script, stuck rigidly to it, and then scarpered. I’d hoped for the chance to interrogate the ideas that the speakers were sharing – without the chance to debate it begins to feel a little like propaganda.
Similar problems afflicted Arts Council England and the Royal Society of the Arts’ State of the Arts conference earlier this year. This was much more structured, with provocation papers sent out in advance, but again, attenders did not take advantage of their proximity: the great and the good of the arts world were gathered in one place, and what happened? Ed Vaizey got heckled a bit, questions from the floor became soap-box rants and chairs let panel participants talk for so long that there was no time for questions or discussion. Not a productive way to spend the day. TEDxYork, the most recent conference I attended, got closer to hitting the mark. A follow-on from last year’s Shift Happens, it stuck to the TED format, where each speaker is invited to present just one idea. The speakers who stayed with this format were engaging, interesting and sensible. Those who strayed from this simple brief were the ones who wanted to share their latest brilliant project. Some of them were beautiful, creative and original, but the attenders are not the people who need convincing. The big What Next event held at the Young Vic just before Arts Council England’s funding announcement fell into many of the same traps. Speakers used their time to extol the virtues of the arts, to make passionate pleas against cuts, to reiterate the importance of their work. The most practical thing that came out of this event was a petition/letter to David Cameron, but to do this days before ACE made its cuts felt like too little, too late.
I am not a big fan of the “open space” format favoured by the Devoted and Disgruntled organisers, either: with no nominated chair to guide a discussion, nothing gets done. A great deal is said, but after a day of talk and tea, you end up no further forward. The last event I went to was called “Funding cuts: where do we go from here?”, an event Matt Trueman called “necessary and urgent”. I completely agree that discussing this question is both, but the “whoever comes are the right people, whenever it starts is the right time, it’s over when it’s over” philosophy that “open spacing” uses so easily gets hijacked. A discussion about arts education came up with a wonderfully utopian vision of what it should be like, and when I ventured to ask how we could go about making changes to bring about this glorious new way of educating our children, I was roundly told off for being cynical. Without some structure, you might as well be undergrads sitting in a bar at 3am putting the world to rights for all the practical change you will effect. I know others disagree, but if anyone has an example of a tangible, practical change that has come out of an open space discussion, then I’d like to hear it. Ironically, the event that most closely resembles a drunken, setting-the-world-to-rights chat – Twespians – is actually the one that seems to get the most done. A meet-up for people who have spoken on Twitter, there is a real sense of energy and community about attenders at Twespians events, and an offshoot fringe starting with how journalists and PRs can work better together looks likely to be the start of something useful and interesting. Here’s hoping.